Edington Priory, Edington, Wiltshire, England

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Edington Priory
Location: Edington, Wiltshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 August 2018, 9:15pm

The building

Edington Priory (dedicated to St Mary, St Katherine and All Saints) can trace its foundation to the nuns of Romsey Abbey just before the Norman Conquest, becoming a chantry church with the construction of the current church building. William Edington, Bishop of Winchester, founded the chantry in order to have prayers said for himself, his parents and his brother. The priory was built by the masons who had completed Gloucester Cathedral (and went onto undertake work at Winchester Cathedral) and was consecrated in 1361. It is a wonderful example of the transition between the decorated and perpendicular styles. For a while the church was a monastic house of the Augustinian Order of Bonhommes (the Brothers of Penitence).

The church

Edington Abbey is where the priest and metaphysical poet George Herbert married Jane Danvers on 5 March 1629, and is home to the bells from the now abandoned ghost village of Imber. Every August (since 1956), it has been home for one week of the year to a festival of music within the liturgy, of which this evening’s service was a part. There are four services a day featuring traditional liturgical music as well as new commissions and organ works. The midweek choral evensong is featured the regular live broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

The neighborhood

Edington is a small village on the edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire about six miles from the county town of Trowbridge. The village has no obvious centre and is spread out around a network of small roads, characterised by attractive houses and cottages, some of them half-timbered and thatched. The old turnpike road from Bath to Salisbury ran nearby. To the north of Edington lies Keevil Aerodrome, which played a major role in World War II in both the Normandy landings (Operation Overlord) and Operation Market Garden, the unsuccessful Allied operation in Germany and the Netherlands, the subject of both the novel and film A Bridge Too Far.

The cast

It was not clear which of the five male clergy (of seven in total) was leading the liturgy for this the first service of the 2018 festival, but there were three choirs with approximately 60 singers drawn from UK cathedrals, accompanied by an accomplished organist.

What was the name of the service?

Compline.

How full was the building?

The nave was full with some in the transepts – about 120 worshippers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There were two welcomers at the door selling the Companion to the Festival, the proceeds of which support the festival.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not at first, as the fixed kneeler on the back of the pew in front meant it was difficult to clamber into the pew (past a somewhat huffy worshiper already seated), but once I had propped myself in a settled position, it was comfortable enough for the 30-minute ceremony.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reverential and hushed, albeit a lot of coming and going. But once the candles had been lit and electric lights extinguished, it was wonderfully and beautifully atmospheric. I wanted to whip my phone out for a photographic snap but was fearful of the huffy retired major general whom I had disturbed when I took my seat.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Psalm 85:4 – “Turn us, O God our Saviour, and let thine anger cease from us” (sung).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a pre-printed booklet giving the ceremonial for all the week’s services, but one would have needed a personal acolyte to see any of the words in the medieval gloom. But it wasn't a ceremony for joining in. The festival brochure had all the music listed and translations of Latin texts for (subsequent) perusal and study.

What musical instruments were played?

A new (2014) and very fine Harrison and Harrison Organ accompanying three choirs – a nave choir, consort, and schola cantorum.

Did anything distract you?

I couldn’t quite work out why some of the congregation stood for singing of a setting of the hymn “Te lucis ante terminum” (in a lovely setting by Matthew Martin) but then remained seated for the Canticle of Simeon.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This was a solemn liturgy, with a fair sprinkling of tweed jackets and pearls (not necessarily worn by the same people) in the congregation, alongside the major general and a few dowager duchesses.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There were two sublime moments – hearing the Nunc Dimittis sung from Herbert Howells’ Collegium Regale and hearing the sublime setting of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” sung at the end of the liturgy in a premiere by a remarkably young and stupendously talented musician.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Really nothing – I even softened towards the major.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

There was a general exodus for the door at the end of the service, although the routes to the exit were blocked by some of the more elderly and richly bedecked of Wiltshire’s gentry and retired gentlefolk, who were busy greeting long lost friends in a manner not far removed from one of Anthony Trollope’s imagined parties at de Courcy Castle.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None served – the service finished at 10.00pm and I suspect that the ice would have melted in many of the villagers’ gin and tonics.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 — If the music were like this all through the year, without a doubt little would keep me away.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

It was a wonderfully spiritual and uplifting experience – a tonic after a difficult week and a lift for the week to come.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The young and talented soloist in “For the Fallen.” Thank you!

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